Asia Report N°21612 Dec 2011
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS
The ability of Pakistan’s radical Islamic parties to mount limited but potentially violent opposition to the government has made democratic reform, and by extension the reduction of religious extremism and development of a more peaceful and stable society, more challenging. This is a reflection of those parties’ well-organised activist base, which is committed to a narrow partisan agenda and willing to defend it through violence. While their electoral support remains limited, earlier Islamisation programs have given them a strong legal and political apparatus that enables them to influence policy far beyond their numerical strength. An analysis of party agendas and organisation, as well as other sources of influence in judicial, political and civil society institutions, is therefore vital to assessing how Pakistan’s main religious parties apply pressure on government, as well as the ability and willingness of the mainstream parties that are moderate on religious issues to resist that pressure.
These parties’ ability to demonstrate support for their various agendas is an expression of coherent internal structures, policymaking processes and relations between the leadership and the rank-and-file. These aspects of party functioning are, therefore, as critical to understanding their role in the polity and prospects of influencing policy in the future as in understanding their relationship to the state.
The Islamic parties that are the subject of this report might operate within the current political order, but their ultimate aim is to replace it with one that is based on narrow, discriminatory interpretations of Islam. They have also taken equivocal positions on militant jihad: on the one hand, they insist on their distinction from militant outfits by virtue of working peacefully and within the democratic system; on the other, they admit to sharing the ideological goal of enforcing Sharia (Islamic law), while maintaining sizeable madrasa and mosque networks that are breeding grounds for many extremist groups.
Moreover, belying their claims of working peacefully, the major Islamic parties maintain militant wings, violent student organisations and ties to extremist groups, and have proved more than willing to achieve political objectives through force. After parlaying military support during the 1980s into significant political and legislative gains, and even absent military support and the electoral assistance that entailed, the parties have still been able to defend earlier gains through intimidation and violent agitation on the streets. In response, faced with their opposition, the mainstream moderate parties have often abandoned promised reforms while in government, or even made further concessions, such as the National Assembly’s constitutional amendment in 1974 declaring the Ahmadi sect non-Muslim.
Such compromises have not offset the pressure of the ulama (religious scholars), as intended, but only emboldened religious hardliners.
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